For Kansas City Chiefs defensive backs Bryan Cook, Joshua Williams, HBCU journeys intersect
The second-year players took different paths to NFL success, but both started at historically Black universities
FRANKFURT, Germany — Two days before the Kansas City Chiefs faced the Miami Dolphins here, Bryan Cook and Joshua Williams, defensive backs for the Chiefs, talked about how their respective HBCU journeys led them to the NFL and special moments like this.
Their paths also reflect the changing ways that players have used their experiences at historically Black colleges and universities to reach the NFL. Cook and Williams entered the league together in 2022. Cook, who played at Howard University for two seasons before transferring to Cincinnati, was selected by the Chiefs in the second round of the 2022 NFL draft.
Williams, a three-year starter at Division II Fayetteville State, was taken by the Chiefs in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL draft.
“The journey is different,” Cook said. “The destination is all the same.”
Cook and Williams were teammates in February when Kansas City defeated Philadelphia to win Super Bowl LVII. Now, here they were on Sunday, playing in the NFL’s first game in Frankfurt, as part of the league’s global initiative. As an exclamation point to his experience in Germany, Cook scored on a dramatic 59-yard fumble return for a touchdown in Kansas City’s 21-14 victory.
After the game, Cook was asked when was the last time he scored a defensive touchdown. Cook smiled and said, “In 2018, at Howard.”
Cook was a cornerback at Howard University in 2018 when he intercepted a pass and ran it back 41 yards for a touchdown. The Howard experience seems like two lifetimes ago.
Cook and Williams reflect two realities of HBCU football. Cook, in particular, represents the dilemma of those programs whose stock-in-trade used to be finding diamonds in the rough, developing them and sending them to the pros. Back in the day, Kansas City, like most of the old American Football League teams, feasted on HBCU players. Three former players from HBCUs Buck Buchanan (Grambling State) Willie Lanier (Morgan State) and Emmitt Thomas (Bishop College) are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Today, the college transfer portal has turned HBCU programs into minor league pipelines for larger programs that offer polished players like Cook the opportunity to play on larger platforms. A Cincinnati native, Cook was lightly recruited out of Mount Healthy High School. Howard was the only Division I school that offered Cook a football scholarship.
In two seasons with the Bisons — 2017 and 2018 — Cook blossomed into an all-conference cornerback in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. After a successful sophomore season, Cook made the difficult decision to enter the NCAA transfer portal. Calling it a business decision, Cook chose Cincinnati.
“I was looking for the best fit for me. Cincinnati reached out. It was an opportunity to be on a bigger stage and go back home to family,” he said.
“I still hold Howard deep in my heart. I met the closest people in my life there — no hard feelings. At the time, I had to figure out the best opportunity for me to prosper.”
There were many adjustments to make at Cincinnati: adjusting to a predominantly white campus, adjusting to being a smaller fish in a larger pond.
“At Howard I was comfortable,” he said. “At Cincinnati I had a whole culture shock, I got a whole environment shock. I wasn’t the man anymore. I’m coming off the bench — my whole identity shifted. I had to reconstruct what I wanted to do. Everything was a challenge for me. I had to get a different identity.”
On top of that, Cook broke his ankle. But the hardest part was learning a new position after being switched from corner to safety.
“That was the one thing I feared the most,” he said. “Learning a different system and changing my position. It took a leap of faith.”
Cook could have played it safe. “I could have stayed at Howard for the full three, four years,” he said. “But it worked out in the end. I proved that I could play on all stages.
“I can’t say that if I stayed it would have turned out any different. I will say that leaving and having that time by myself, where I wasn’t the man on campus, made me have to start from scratch.”
At Cincinnati, Cook got the opportunity to play on a larger stage. In 2020, the Bearcats played Georgia in the Peach Bowl and in 2021 Cincinnati earned a berth in the College Football Playoff and played Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. By the end of his senior season, Cook was named to the All-American Athletic Conference first team.
“A lot of adversity came when I first got there, but it shaped who I am today,” Cook said.
Williams’ path to the NFL was a bit more straightforward.
While Cook took a gamble and left Howard, Williams gambled and stayed at Division II Fayetteville State. A Fayetteville, North Carolina, native, Williams improved each season and was receiving attention from NFL scouts by his junior season.
“There was definitely a time when I was considering transferring, just to get looked at more and be on a larger stage,” he said. “But I stayed the course, I just decided to stay and stick it out. I had the attention I needed that at least I’d get a shot at the league. That’s all I needed.”
He also didn’t want to risk going to a losing, albeit larger, program or going to a program where he might not have a fair opportunity to compete for a starting position. He decided that he did not want to do a total makeover.
“I didn’t want to do anything to hurt the little success I did have in getting to the next level. So, I decided to keep with the same program,” he said.
Williams Fayetteville State teams never played in any high-profile bowl games. They were runners-up in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament in 2018 and 2019. His 2020 season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Williams was invited to play in the 2022 Senior Bowl, and he attended the 2022 NFL draft combine.
I asked Williams about the role Deion Sanders, the current Colorado coach, may have played in his being drafted. Sanders became Jackson State head football coach in 2020. During his three seasons there, Sanders brought unprecedented attention not only to JSU, but to the entire HBCU universe.
Sanders made a point of publicly questioning why talented HBCU players were not being drafted by NFL teams. Williams clearly had NFL talent, but he conceded that Sanders played a role in the draft.
“I think it absolutely played at least somewhat of a role,” Willimas said. “He definitely has the stature to do that. Once he hammered down that he wasn’t happy that HBCU players weren’t being looked at, I think there were four HBCU players in the draft. I feel that’s not a coincidence.”
In 2023, Cobie Durant (South Carolina State) was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, James Houston (Jackson State) was drafted by the Detroit Lions and Ja’Tyre Carter (Southern University) was drafted by the Chicago Bears).
For Williams, the means justify the ends. He and Cook are teammates, close friends and share HBCU roots.
The only difference is that Williams stayed put.
“Bryan did the opposite and it worked for him,” Williams said. “I did what I did, and it worked for me. For us to take different paths and still end up at the same final destination just shows that they are going to find you, regardless.”
From North Carolina and Ohio to Fayetteville State and Howard, with a stop at Cincinnati, Cook and Williams give credence to the timeless wisdom that it doesn’t matter where your journey begins, only where it ends.